Volcano goddess Pele is portrayed by Big Island artist Arthur Johnsen in this painting for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Winning vision of
Pele an unusual take

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park picks
a painting that shows a symbol of new life


Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2003

>> Maluhia Kuahiwinui is the name of the model for artist Arthur Johnsen's painting of the volcano goddess Pele. An article on Page A3 Friday incorrectly used her maiden name, Princess Keliihoomalu.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin strives to make its news report fair and accurate. If you have a question or comment about news coverage, call Editor Frank Bridgewater at 529-4791 or email him at

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK >> Pele, the goddess of volcanic fire, holds an egg in her hand.

This is not the common view of the Hawaiian goddess, who is often seen as a destroyer, especially in 1983-1992 when lava from Kilauea Volcano destroyed 182 homes in the Kalapana area of the Big Island.

But this is a special egg that Pele holds in the painting by Big Island artist Arthur Johnsen. It is the egg that gives birth to Hiiaka, Pele's favorite younger sister, honored by hula dancers.

The egg is a symbol of regeneration and new life, said Johnsen. Lava creates new land as well as it destroys old places.

"It's not all about destruction," Johnsen said.

This dual vision of Pele as destroyer and creator may have helped prompt an anonymous committee of Hawaiian elders to select Johnsen's painting this week for purchase by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Johnsen's vision was selected from a field of 140 entries in a competition announced by the park in April to select a new image of the goddess for the main visitor center.

"To Hawaiians this place is the sacred home of Pele," said park ranger Jim Gale. "We need to help visitors appreciate that."

The winning appeal of Johnsen's Pele lies in the model who posed for him, Johnsen said. She is Princess Keliihoomalu of Kalapana, the area devastated by lava a decade ago.

Randy Farias, who runs the Ohana o Hawaii gallery in Hilo where Johnsen sells his other works, noted that other images of Pele that he saw were too hostile.

In the painting of Keliihoomalu as Pele, "what everyone has commented on is the compassion in her face," he said.

Don Swanson, head of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, called the painting "fabulous" yesterday during its first public exhibition in the park. "I like the way it's lit," he said.

Living near Kalapana and having watched many lava flows there at night, Johnsen noted how the lava throws light from below up toward faces. He used the same lighting from below on Keliihoomalu's face.

The rules for the competition called for artists who felt qualified "by virtue of their whole life experience."

Johnsen was born on Oahu.

Johnsen has done art for clothing, designs for bedspreads at the Kona Village Resort, and several murals including at the Plantation House Restaurant, Seawatch Restaurant and Aston Kaanapali Shores on Maui.

He did not plan to enter the competition, but decided to do so at Farias' urging, starting the painting with Keliihoomalu just 10 days before the deadline.

Johnsen will receive $8,000 for the painting.

He said he will use the money to pay down credit card debts.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park


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